I’m Ghana Miss It

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“Friendship. It’s a Ghana thing.” is printed on the sign. Our group took the hashtag “#justGhanathings” and used it throughout our trip. Photo Credit: Anna Hoffman

Akwaaba! “Welcome!” This was the first word spoken to me when I met new smiling faces in Ghana. It was not the standard “Hi.” “How are you?” that one receives on the daily basis in America: where regardless of how you really are, you simply respond “good” and get on with your life. The Ghanaian people I met cared. They were inviting, welcoming, loving. The communities that my school group were surrounded with were supportive of one and other.

 

On the last day of our three weeks, Paige and I spent the day walking on the roads of Accra: stopping to eat lunch or buy mangos. I think most people would be shocked that two foreign females were wandering through Ghana’s largest city and capital, but I felt so safe and secure. Maybe it is the rooted culture or the faithfulness in religion. Regardless, the way I felt in Ghana was the most precious part of the trip for me.

Partly, because after each day we had real homes to go back to. When Paige and I opened the vibrant blue gate, everyone knew we were home. Mamí would yell “Hellooooo” from the kitchen and all three of her grandchildren would giggle and run outside to greet us. They had overflowing love that they shared with us, but their knowledge too was something I learned from. Our host family taught us how to hand wash our clothes, but more importantly the intentionally of conversation.

As a young child, I was taught that “honesty is the best policy,” but that is only part of the truth. Our family showed us that within communication, it is so important to shoot straight. Share how you feel and say exactly what you want to get across. There is no need to fluff up a sentence to come across as nice. Speak the truth and you will be heard.

Paige and I learned this the hard way. Nothing too serious, but we were unfair to ourselves and our host family. We frequently did not enjoy the dinners that were prepared for us. Sometimes we honestly could not eat them at all. Instead of sharing the truth with our host family, we pretended to be full and came up with all different types of excuses. We did not want to insult them or hurt their feelings in any way, but it is different in Ghanaian culture and our host family would not have taken our words negatively. Our Auntie even said, “if you communicate fully then you are understood.” If Paige and I had spoken up then maybe we wouldn’t have had to secretly eat so many granola bars late at night. But, our culture influenced us differently, so we didn’t feel comfortable to say something. In retrospect I took away from this simple and silly situation that the intentionality of conversation is so important. The truth triumphs and there is no point to beat around the bush. As Paige says, “I’m not trying to hate, I’m just telling the truth.”

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This is a collage I made of almost every meal that Paige and I ate at our host family’s home. Breakfast was by far our most favorite and you can see Paige’s funny facial expressions to figure out which meals we were not too fond of. Photo Credit: Anna Hoffman

I have gushed about how great Ghanaians are, but my group was also spectacular. I came on this trip without knowing anyone. I left this trip with knowing everyone probably too well. People’s personalities constantly blow me away. Our group was eclectic and I appreciate the intellectual conversations that we had with one and other behind the scenes. One of the best parts about learning are the debates you get to have with your peers outside of the classroom where you share your ideas and challenge theirs. This trip made that probable and prominent. Memories to cherish, the betterment of my brain, and a legacy to continue.

 

 

Multifaceted Stereotypes

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “the problem with stereotypes is that they are incomplete.” Our perceptions are so easily influenced by one story or a single photo. As a young child I thought that everyone in Africa was poor. My school was a supporter of UNICEF, so the photos I saw and the videos we watched highlighted poverty. When you are trying to raise money for those in need, you only focus on the heart wrenching pictures. Instantaneously, I categorized all Africans as poor naked people. This is most definitely not the case. For the majority of our trip in Ghana, we have seen lots of wealth in the city of Accra. In 2015 it was reported that 2,900 individuals were worth more than one million dollars or 4.6 million cedi. There are huge beautiful homes and expensive cars. But, there is also poverty. A disparity of wealth exists just like you would find in any other country.

What I find most interesting is that many Ghanaians assume that America is a “land of gold.” They have only heard the single story of success. They have never heard the failures, the stories about the cycles of poverty, or the lack of job opportunities. Ghanaians think of America as the land of gold, even though Ghana was previously named the Gold Coast.

 

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The Cape Coast Castle is nestled on the Gold Coast.

 

The American stereotype is incomplete. For the majority, the Americans that travel to Ghana are wealthy. They have the money to fly halfway around the world, so they are viewed as rich people. This causes a discrepancy because it categorizes all Americans, which partially explains why my Ghanaian professor, Dr. Kwami, was shocked with the homelessness in America while she was studying. As storytellers and travelers, we cannot solely focus on one side. Wealth exists in both America and Africa, but so does poverty.

On this May Experience, my four person group focused on this topic for our project. We wrote a short essay entitled, “Gold Lenses: Ghanaians’ Perceptions of the U.S.

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A glimpse at what my group wrote.

In addition, we made a video that highlights three Ghanaian interviewees. Our multifaceted project provided a solid foundation with multiple layers of opinion: creating a strong and powerful dynamic.

Media misconstrues our thoughts and opinions, which is why traveling is of such high importance to me. Truly experiencing the country of Ghana on my own has opened my eyes to the vastness that exists here. Ghana is rich in culture, cocoa, and love!

 

Black is more than a Color

Ghana is the second largest exporter of cocoa. In “The Ghana Reader,” Clifford Campbell takes note of another dominant export: people. Between 1514 and 1866, about 1.3 million slaves were exported from the Gold Coast. Europeans built slaves castles (Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle) where Ghanaian people were enslaved for several months before being put onto a ship headed to America. Treated like goods, these people were denied basic human rights.

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Walking into the women’s slave dungeon was somber and surreal. The American school system teaches us about slavery, but standing in a room where other women lived in horrific conditions for months before they were sold was completely different and emotionally moving. Photo Credit: Janet Kwami

Walking in the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle was a heart shattering experience. I had learned about enslavement from my teachers starting at a young age. Though, reading books and watching movies is completely different from standing in the same place where our human brothers and sisters suffered. Ripped from their homes, torn from their families, and shoved into dark rooms where they were crammed with others in unsanitary conditions. Our guide told us that if we were to take samples of the very soil we were standing on, we would find traces of feces, vomit, and blood. The important piece that is frequently overlooked is that these people’s stories did not start in the slave castles or upon their arrival in America. They have roots rich in tradition and culture. They had families and people whom they loved.

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Reflecting and thinking about the horrific conditions at the Cape Cast Castle. Photo Credit: Paige Flagge

Punctuating narratives are important in conveying this, especially with regards to race. The history of African-Americans does not start with slavery, but their traditional society. Black is not just a color, but representative of a cultural context with rich roots.

Olaudah Equiano portrays this in his writing, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.” This narrative brings truth into the light by depicting raw emotions. Equiano was a man who experienced the slave trade, but he had a story that started before “the wretchedness of slavery.”

Slavery is an incomplete story. We learn about slavery without much context to the “before.” Being in the slave castles opened my eyes to what had been. The cruelty, the darkness, the unknown. As Equiano said, it was the “ignorance of what [he] was to undergo.” Slavery has existed in almost every society, but the degradation in treatment was a new extremity.

When I walked through the “door of no return,” it was different. I knew that after the tour, I would be returning home. But during the transatlantic slave trade, all the men and women who walked through that door never returned. They sat under the decks of a ship for months with an unknown future ahead.

It was a powerful experience to walk on the same path. Continuing to learn and share our world’s history is necessary, so that we will never again allow the enslavement of our own human brothers and sisters.

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The view from the top of the Cape Coast Castle was beautiful. Scary to believe that people lives their daily lives walking around right here while people were enslaved and suffering below. Photo Credit: MayX

Sources:

Campbell, Clifford (2016) “The Ghana Reader.”

Equiano, Olaudah (1789) “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.”

Market Madness in Kumase

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Overlooking the outdoor market from a balcony before we ventured into the maze. Photo Credit: Dr. Shaniece Criss

The world’s largest outdoor market is in the Ashanti region of Ghana. The market is in the busling capital, Kumase, where about 8 million people live. Many are grounded in the traditional roots of their Akan culture. This culture extends throughout Ghana. In fact, Clifford Campbell wrote that “about half of Ghana’s estimated 25 million people fall under the cultural-linguistic group known as Akan.”

Stuart Hall‘s “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices” highlights two definitions of culture:

  1. The sum of great ideas, the traditional definition.
  2. Shared values, the anthropological definition.

What he wrote stood out to me because these cultural meanings “organize and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects.” On this trip, I was able to experience the difference in cultural meaning firsthand.

In the market, we stepped out of the bus and onto the streets of Kumase. We were dressed in similar outfits of which we had been wearing for the past two weeks in the urban city of Accra. I thought nothing of my clothing as we walked on the side of the road and into the allies of the markets. Our white skin automatically drew attention, but everyone’s eyes seemed to go straight to our legs. Murmurs filled the air as the women in the market spoke their native tongue to each other. I knew they were talking about us, but we were quick on our feet prancing from one section to another, so I could not gather enough information to figure out more. It was only when a lady passing me on the path grabbed my arm that I knew something was not right. She said, “please girls can I talk to you.” We said, “no medasse,” (which means no thank you) because we wanted to stay with our group.  With one missed second, we could have been lost in the maze of the market.

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You can see how packed it is within the market. The pathways are small, so keeping up with the group and our guide was tough, but also created a rush of excitement with the chaos going on all around us. Photo Credit: Dr. Shaniece Criss

When we finally stopped at a market shop to buy some beads, a lady approached my friend and used her hands to show that we needed to cover our butts. We were confused because our butts were covered. Our teacher, Dr. Kwami, then explained to us that the women in the market were not pleased with our short shorts. Then, it all clicked because I was wondering why I felt a tug on my shorts as I walked through the market earlier.

At first, I felt condemned by the reactions we received. Although, in truth, it made sense. Accra is the capital of Ghana, a diverse culture exists there. As we traveled further north, to the Asante region, there is a stronger emphasis on tradition. The older members of the community saw our attire as disrespectful. Mainly, in the sense that their young people are fascinated with western culture and we are impacting their tradition in a negative way. I learned a very important lesson. When I enter a new culture, I need to have intentional awareness of what is percieved as appropriate so that I can be respectful of the local traditions.

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An ariel shot of the market that Dr. Criss took. Colorful umbrellas light up the cloudy day!

Sources:

Campbell, Clifford (2016) “The Ghana Reader.”

Hall, Stuart (1997) “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.”

Stepping into New Shoes

One of the conversations I had at the village of Krofu was with an architect named Samuel. As we were building side-by-side, we shared bits and pieces of our lives. We jumped from present day studies and activities to future goals and plans. I explained to him that my current focus was education and that my future plans were career oriented. He understood my response, but pushed me to share my family plans. He was a little shocked when I said that I was happily single and that I don’t want to be married until I’m close to thirty.

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Me smiling in front of the construction of the library in Krofu. Photo Credit: Janet Kwami

Samuel’s next question is what struck me the most. He honestly asked, “Would you marry someone who wasn’t white?” I wish I could put the feelings from that moment into words, but no words exist to explain what I felt. I respected him for asking that question, but I was almost dumfounded. I responded, “It is the heart that matters. My husband could be White, Black, Asian, Mexican – any race – but I only care about the goodness of their heart.” I wish I had asked him the same question back because I am curious as to how Ghanaians, specifically Samuel, feel about marrying someone who is not a Ghanaian and of a different race. I think that conversations like this are important to openly and honestly have with each other: fostering a safe environment to discuss racial conflicts.

In relation to this conversation, at lunch in Accra one afternoon, a man at another table noticed “Pace Academy” on my t-shirt. It turned out that he was from Atlanta and that his niece went to school with me and I knew her. (It really is amazing how small the world actually is). I chatted with him for a while to learn what he was doing in Accra and vise versa. He had moved to Accra because he started a successful security company. He gave me his business card and we took a picture so that he could show his niece. This was a completely normal interaction for anyone and everyone to have. Although, the entirety of the conversation, I could tell from my peripheral vision that everyone in the restaurant was staring at us. Here was a white teenage girl talking to a fifty year old African-American. If only I could read their minds because I would love to know what everyone at the restaurant was thinking. I will never know, but being a minority in Ghana draws attention to me in a complexity of ways.

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Surrounded by the school children in Krofu. There was a language barrier with the little children, but our smiles created a universal language. Photo Credit: Janet Kwami

This interaction was just an example, but it is something that I have experienced throughout the entirety of this trip. Some little children love us and want to hold our hands: others cry instantly when they see us. As a redhead, I thought that I always stand out regardless, but I never knew that the color of my skin could differentiate me with such extremity.

A professor on this trip, Dr. King, shared with me that her son was the only black kid on his swim team. Not only did these boys already stand out in their skin-revealing Speedos, but the color of his skin directed even more attention to him. In school I learned from a young age that it is important to step into someone else’s shoes to understand their situation and perspective, but I have never taken that into effect when regarding race. As a majority in America, I guess I can honestly say that I have been oblivious. Stepping into Ghana as a minority has shown me another perspective. Sometimes the actual experience is needed to truly understand.

A Golden Trip to the Gold Coast

At dusk we walked bare foot on the beach to settle down for a sunrise. The ocean reflected warm hues of reds and orange as the sun illuminated the clouds in the sky. The waves crashed and we sat in peace reflecting on the most spectacular past two days.

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The sun hid behind the palm trees and started to peak out around 5AM. Photo Credit: Anna Hoffman

We drove to the Cape Coast and stayed at the Anomabo Beach Resort. Our day trips included visits to Elmina Castle, the Kakum National Park, and the Cape Coast Castle. Even though our afternoons were action-packed, we always managed to have just enough energy left to go swimming in the Gulf of Guinea.

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I even swam at 6AM! After our superb sunrise; we packed up and headed to meet the village chief and elders of Krofu for our community service project. As we drove into the village, our bus was greeted with smiles and waves from distracted school children. The moment we stepped off the bus, little children came up and grabbed our hands. They were fascinated with the pigment of our skin and even the plastic bracelets we were wearing.

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Others were wearing apple watches and had expensive cameras around their necks. After reading (that article passed out in meeting in Furman Hall) I decided not to bring a camera. I wanted to focus on intentional conversations and the work that we were there to do.

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It is hard to see the Chief because one of the elders is blocking his full view, but he was wearing traditional cloth. It was also fascinating because we could not speak directly to the Chief out of respect, so we had a linguist that would share our messages with him. Photo Credit: MayX

We went straight to work after meeting with the chiefs. We started by lifting heavy cement bricks that were going to be added to the ongoing build of a community library. This was not easy work. Our hands were raw and our bodies dripping in sweat, but let me tell you – our spirits were alive and pulsing with energy.

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Back and forth we went: lifting heavy cement bricks from a pile to the construction site. Photo Credit: Janet Kwami

We took some short breaks and were treated to whole coconuts ☺ It was at this point where our group’s mission went off track. The school children wanted us to play and who doesn’t want to run around and be loved on. The workers insisted that after our work, we would have plenty of time to spend with them, but intentions are not always true.

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These men are working hard, but where are the Furman students? Photo Credit: Janet Kwami

Often we travel abroad and sign up to do specific things for the stolen pictures and memories. I eagerly wanted to play with the joyful children, but I knew that my presence would only provide fun for a couple of hours, but my labor and help to build the library would bring happiness to these children for years to come.

While the majority of my peers abandoned our mission, a few of us stuck around to help the men. These men lost a day of paid work from their main careers to help us with the build. Even though we were amateur builders, our presence and support was appreciated. I held back my tears as our conversations flowed because the intentionality we shared is something I will hold in my heart for eternity. I left the village of Krofu with a heavy heart. The work was not completed, but the relationships made will only continue to grow. The line of communication is now open between the Krofu community and us Furman students/professors.

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No photos please…I am working! Photo Credit: Janet Kwami

Africa is not a Country, but a Continent

Think about Africa. What pops into your head? I bet you are envisioning tribesmen with naked children running around. Maybe even a beautiful sunset in the scenery behind their mud hut home while the air is filled with wild noises from lions and zebras.

This is not Africa: being in Ghana has taught me that Africa is a continent with diverse countries. Just like how Alabama is not the same as New York, so why do we Americans assume that the entirety of the African continent is the same. There are 54 countries in Africa. Each diversified by different values, languages, climates, etc. We are caught in a loop of grouping the continent as one, but Binyavanga Wainaina calls us readers to recognize this in his article, How to Write about Africa.

My favorite line in this article states, “the modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa.” One of our groups’ first concerns while traveling was not only our safety, but the safety of our material items. Our guide, Winifred, calmed our worries by sharing that if a Ghanaian sees someone steal, then they will chase them down, strip them naked, and beat them up. If that threat isn’t enough, Ian Utley wrote that “a big reason why Ghanaians adhere to their moral codes is that God will know if you don’t.” I previously mentioned that Ghanaians are strongly rooted in their faith. Therefore, stealing would truly be abnormal behavior because Ghanaians are loving and generous people.

I have experienced this love with my host family. On the second night of staying with them, they included my roommate, Paige, and me in their birthday celebration for Grandpapa. He turned 82 years old and wanted all of his family there. Paige and I are his temporary adopted children, but we are treated like true members of the family. We went to his living room and sang Happy Birthday to him, but also “How old are you now?” and “May God bless you now” in the same tune. We took family photos (which Paige and I featured in) and afterwards, we all put our hands on the knife together and cut his birthday cake.

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All this after knowing us for less than 24 hours. I hope my experience can provide the takeaway that Ghanaians have deep affection for one another. They make connections and truly embrace all into their families. Ian Utley’s book, Culture Smart Ghana, remarks that “human relationships are considered the most valuable possessions.” The power of love and family is so apparent and a vibrant part of Ghanaian culture.

Sources:

Utley, Ian (2016) “Ghana – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture.”

Wainaina, Binyavanga (1992) “How to Write about Africa.”